Sunset Stories
Chapter 29: Bradbury’s War

Copyright© 2016 by Scriptorius

“You mean to tell me that one little old man did all this?” Douglas McCormack, head of one of the Northwest’s largest lumber companies, leaned forward in his king-size chair, slapping meaty hands on his desk and glaring at his field manager.

Shifting uneasily in his more modest seat, Bill Wooldridge nodded. “That’s about it, Doug.”

“Alone?”

“Well, I heard there are some Indians he’s friendly with. I think there’s about half a dozen, but I’ve never seen any of them. They might have helped a little. I guess we have to accept that he did most of it himself.” Shifting his five-foot-nine, two hundred pound heft back in the chair, McCormack took a large cigar from a cedarwood box, which he pushed across the desk to Wooldridge, who shook his head and produced his own pack of noxious black smokes, lighting up in unison with his boss

McCormack shook his head in wonderment. “Bill,” he said quietly, “if I didn’t know you better, I’d have a hard time taking this in.” He stabbed a finger at the single sheet of paper on his desk. It was the letter he had received from Wooldridge three days earlier, informing him of serious problems with the company’s latest logging operation and stating that the field manager was on his way to headquarters to discuss the matter.

“I’ve read what you say here,” McCormack said, tapping the note again, “but I think you’d better tell me face to face, then maybe I’ll start believing it.”

Wooldridge, a lean six-footer, rubbed a forefinger under his nose and sprawled back in his seat. “Okay. Well, I went up there to the Bitterroots, like we agreed. Took Sam Dawes along. We scouted around some, saw a few spots, but nothing that really impressed us. Then, after five days, we came across as fine a belt of timber as I ever saw. Mostly fir and hemlock. Stretches for about five miles along the foothills and varies from just under a mile to nearly two miles deep. We did the surveying and found things just about right, even down to a river near the low end of the timber. Perfect position for a slide, so the logs could be floated down to the main fork. You know where that is.”

“McCormack nodded. “Yes, but it’s a good way from where you’re talking about.”

“That’s right, but it’s a clear run, or it was.”

“Was?”

“I’ll come to that later. We were just about through and were sitting there, talking it over, when this skinny little old man, must be around seventy, came tramping along. Said his name was Francis Bradbury and asked what we were up to. We told him and for minute I thought he’d gone crazy. He said we’d no right to do it and if there was any logging done there, it would be over his corpse. When he calmed down a little, he pointed out some of the trees to us. Said they were ancient long before our grandparents were born – some of them old before Columbus came across. He claimed that one of them was thirty-two feet in circumference at chest level and two hundred and sixty feet tall. Another was thirty-five feet around and two hundred and forty-eight feet in height. The little jasper seems to know every tree there individually. Reckons he’s their guardian.”

McCormack rasped a thumb along his jaw. “Then what?”

“Well, we weren’t inclined to take him too seriously. Didn’t see what he could do. There’s hardly anybody around there, apart from this family of Indians and Bradbury. We don’t know where the Indians are at any particular time – they seem to move around. Bradbury has an old shack but he’s never there. He appears to live mostly in the open. Nearest place with any habitation is a settlement called Jackson Halt. That’s about twenty miles north of the site and it’s nothing but a livery stable, a general store-cum-saloon and six or seven houses. Wouldn’t even be that much, except that the trains stop there. So, like I said, we ignored this little runt. I picked up a team of good men. Got John Appleyard as foreman. You know him. And that Chinese cook we used down Gallatin way. We laid out the quarters like always.”

McCormack’s provision for his workers was exemplary in the industry. In addition to good food, the accommodation was invariably comfortable and was built by the loggers themselves, before commercial work began. It was of a standard pattern, a single log building comprising combined sleeping and eating quarters, with a few square feet partitioned off, so that the manager could do his paperwork. At either end of the large room was a separate section, one for keeping tools, the other for the cook. Both were accessed internally from the main area and externally from doors in the end walls.

Wooldridge eased forward, stubbing out his smoke. “Problems started right away,” he said, his face a picture of weariness as he recalled his experiences. “I’d planned to leave the boys to it and go off with Dawes to do some more scouting, but we never got to that. Seemed as though Bradbury had been watching every move we made. Would have been easy for him too, with so much cover.”

“And you never saw him?”

“Not once, after that first day I told you about.”

“Well, how did he and these Indians, if they were there, manage to do all this and keep out of sight?”

“It’s a way of life with such people. They’re expert woodsmen.”

“Okay. Go on.”

“Well, we were all ready. Got ourselves bedded down, figuring on an early start the following day. We got up, had breakfast, went for the tools and found they’d all been stolen during the night. There was a pencilled note on the door, saying that that was just a beginning. Little varmint must have gone in from the outside door, quiet as a mouse. Took everything except the grindstones.”

“I’ll be damned,” said McCormack. “So you had to get fresh tools?”

“That’s right, and being as the place is so remote, that took four days. While we were about it, I bought a few solid locks and started up a night guard system. The boys didn’t like it, but I insisted.”

“What next?”

“He stole the cook.”

“McCormack sat bolt upright. “How the hell did he do that?”

“Was just after we got back with the new tools. We were ready to start again. Cook was up first, like always. He went down to the stream that feeds into the river. Took his buckets to get water. When he didn’t come back for a while, I went to look for him. Buckets were there all right, with the bottoms busted, and there was another note tied to one of them. Said that Bradbury had ‘reasoned’ with the Chinaman. Hadn’t done him any harm, but we wouldn’t see him again.”

McCormack’s head rose ceilingwards. “What did you do?”

“Well, you know how these men are about food. They were pretty mad, especially as they knew it would take a while to get another cook. None of them wanted to do the job, so I set up another duty roster, giving it to a different fellow every day, and sent Dawes off to find a full-time man. I don’t mind telling you, the situation was getting tenser by the hour.”

“I can imagine that. Then what?”

“Bradbury poisoned the water.”

“Am I really hearing this?”

“Yes, you are. Happened the day after he went off with the cook. We know how he did it. Anyway, just after we’d eaten, we all started feeling queer. Pretty soon, we were all down with gut gripes and the runs. It must have happened when the feller who was on cooking duty went down to get water – we’d repaired the buckets. He’d just filled up when he heard a noise across the stream, saw what he thought was a man moving about and went to investigate. He prowled around for a few minutes but couldn’t find anything, so he came back. Then we ate. Next morning, we were all groggy and in no state to work. Then we found a note on the bunkhouse door, saying we’d be feeling sick for a couple of days because a little something had been put into the water while our man’s attention was distracted.”

McCormack sighed. “I thought such stories only came in dime novels.”

“Yeah, well, the Mexicans have a word for this kind of thing. They call it guerrilla tactics. I think it means little war.”

“That’s right. What next?”

“Right. Well, we were all laid up for two days and the boys were feeling downright mutinous by then. They may be tough, but they reckon they’re paid for working and they sure weren’t doing that. So, by the second morning after the poisoning, we’d had no other incidents and we were ready to get going again. When the first man showed at the bunkhouse door, there was rifle shot and a bullet hit the woodwork, six inches from his head. That went on all morning and afternoon, every time anybody tried to get out. By the time it was over, that door and the frame were in quite a state.”

“What about the night guard? Couldn’t he do anything?”

“No. He’d gone inside first thing, to rouse everybody else. Anyway, he’d heard nothing untoward.”

“So what did you do?”

“We tried to get out by the end doors, but naturally, we’d locked them from the outside. I guess we slipped up there, but we were getting a little confused.”

“I don’t blame you. I might have done the same myself. It’s a natural tendency to put padlocks on the outside. What then?”

“I suppose we could have busted out, but then we reckoned he’d just keep on peppering whichever door we used. Anyway, those boys aren’t soldiers. None of them wanted to chance it. We had a couple of rifles with us, so in the end I took one and decided to dash through the main doorway, figuring that Bradbury didn’t aim to kill anybody and that maybe I could weave around him somehow. I was about ready to make my move, when a stone hit the door. I looked out and there it was, with a piece of paper wrapped around it. I picked it up, went back in, wondering what the rascal had to say. The note just read: ‘That’s all for now’.”

“Damn it, Bill,” said McCormack. “I’m sorry about what you went through, but I have to say I don’t know whether to hate this little devil or admire him. Carry on.”

“Well, by then, there was no point in trying to get any work done that day, so I did my best to pacify the boys. We bedded down early, then this loony started with the crackers.”

“Crackers?”

“That’s right. Firecrackers. Made a hell of a racket. We found out afterwards that he was fastening the damned things to arrows and shooting them from God knows where. Kept us awake all night. I guess that’s when the Indians might have been helping him. I don’t see how one man could have kept up that din by himself. The following morning, what with just getting over the poisoning, then being penned up all day, then getting no sleep, everybody was mighty grumpy. I let the boys have the day off and promised to see them right for pay, thinking we’d get started at first light the next morning.”

“But you didn’t?”

“No. Bradbury did nothing till after dark, then he started with his fireworks again, so we had another night without sleep. That was enough. The crew quit.”

“All of them?”

“Everyone but Sam Dawes. Appleyard said they’d talked it over among themselves. I offered to keep them on day wages till we’d sorted things out, but they reckoned the place was jinxed. Said there was plenty of work where they wouldn’t have to put up with being pestered like that, so they just walked off. I can’t say they were at fault. Those weren’t exactly normal working conditions.”

McCormack stubbed out his cigar. “I doubt that anybody ever heard a stranger tale than this. What did you do then?”

“Dawes and I set off to find another gang. We tried to be quick about it, but the boys who’d quit were putting the word around faster than we could move. Anyway, we did find some men. Not a full team and maybe not as good as the first lot, but we did our best. Got them on site and ready. To tell the truth, I was surprised find the old buzzard hadn’t burned down the bunkhouse while we were away. We’d carted the tools off with us, to avoid losing them again.”

“So, he didn’t try to take the wagon or horses, right?”

“He never interfered with them. I don’t know why that was, except maybe he wanted to leave us with the easiest means of getting away from there. Anyway, we reckoned we were finally primed to start.”

“Then you got stopped again?”

“We surely did, and this time it was a good deal more drastic.”

“How?”

“We’d just turned in, the night before we planned to get going. There’d been no harassment during the day and when nightfall came, there were no more fireworks, but around ten o’clock, we heard a loud noise, like thunder, then a rumbling sound. Seemed to come from some way north of us. We figured there must have been a storm somewhere, although it wasn’t that kind of weather. Then, about fifteen minutes later, there was another sound, just like the first one, then another, then another, so that was four altogether, spread over forty-five minutes or so. That was all. There were no more disturbance. So we had breakfast, then I walked down to check the gradient for the slide. Went to the river, only it wasn’t there.”

“The river not there? Bill, what are you saying? I can just about buy a cook being stolen, but not a river.”

“Well, that’s how it was. Just a trickle of water. So I took Dawes and a couple of the boys and we walked upstream. Five miles or so north of the site, the river flows, or flowed, through a narrow gorge with steep rock walls on either side. Except that most of one side and a fair amount the other weren’t there any more. That was what we’d heard the night before. Bradbury had dynamited the faces and the river was dammed.”

“So there’s a flood up there?”

“There is, but the spot where the job was done isn’t far below the lake where the river flows from. We didn’t have time to go up there, so all I can say is that water’s backed up all right. I don’t know the full extent of it, but one of the new crew says there’s another outlet running westwards from the lake. I can’t confirm that, and anyway it doesn’t matter to us.”

“Could you have cleared the obstruction?”

“Doug, believe me, there’s half a mountain in there. Putting that right isn’t a job for a lumber gang. Some of the stuff is just dust and rubble and some of the rocks are as big as this office.”

“Good grief. Bradbury must have used hell of a lot of dynamite to do that.”

“He did. We discovered that later.”

“How did he get hold of so much?”

“Easy. Like I said, this Jackson Halt place has a railroad siding. It’s common enough for trains to stop there and shunt some of the cars aside. The engines go on and leave those cars until they’re joined by others over the next few days, then they move on together. One of the boxcars in that siding was full of dynamite, bound for the Goodbody Mining Company.”

“Surely the railroad people have some sort of security precautions?”

“Seems not. They never had need of them, or not before this incident. ‘Course, the car was locked up, but a determined man could have got in without too much trouble. And they don’t come any more determined than Bradbury. He must have shifted the dynamite somehow. My guess is he loaded it quietly during the night. Maybe he had a wagon, or mules. However he did it, nobody knew about it for three days.”

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